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Home for lost chords

Occasional instrumentalist Jon O'Connor finds more than strings for his bow. I admit it: at the age of five, I proudly played the Z Cars theme by ear over and over again, without due regard for my family or neighbours. As a punishment, I was forced to pound as far as Grade 3 on the piano and to scrape Grade 2 on the violin. In assembly each Thursday morning, I am the lost chord personified. I need a technical miracle to remedy my wasted musical education. So how do music and multimedia really mix?

Three recent software packages approach music from three different corners of the learning triangle - the only instrument I played with real style at school.

The Virtual School of Music uses the power of multimedia to teach aspiring musicians technical proficiency in musical theory. The CD-Rom takes a few minutes to set up on a PC and plays sweetly from the first touch on the keyboard. Then you are free to dabble with a repertoire which boasts 540 different arrangements of 60 graded classical, traditional and jazz scores spanning over 400 years of music.

This selection is effectively the database around which the student can build a good working knowledge of musical theory and practice. The arrangements are designed for cello, clarinet, flute, guitar, voice, keyboard, saxophone, trombone, trumpet and violin.

Users can listen to a solo part or tease out the accompaniment in separate or orchestrated versions, as well as recording their own performances. And there are, of course, tuning facilities for ensuring total harmony. There is even a handy recording diary which stores input as wave files, using the general Midi format for quick reference and future reworking.

The complementary program of theory study engages music students in work pitched from approximately Grade 1 to Grade 5. The text comes in short, easily absorbed chunks of straightforward language. It is unusual to find a text reading helpful, but here it is useful to listen to the points covered and check out the visual information, shown, for example, on piano keyboard and guitar fret.

The entry level to the theory program is open access, with a bookmark facility to return to the same point on successive occasions without any need to note the page or section reached. The crisp explanation of octaves, where I started off at the beginning of level 1, introduces a logical sequence of well-graduated instruction. The accompanying documentation is equally crisp and even, right down to the words for the theme from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in the original German.

For music curriculum design and management, the 5-14 Music CD-Rom compiled by the Scottish Council for Educational Technology in conjunction with Northern College of Education offers Mac users a meticulous navigation of attainment targets and their practical interpretation. From the opening signpost screen, which guides you into the main components, the program uses technology superbly to deliver a straightforward guide to good teaching.

The text of the curriculum is there for the taking, but what matters most is the extensive support material. The teacher with minimal technical knowledge can plan lessons simply by viewing one of the videos which show appropriate learning contexts. To flesh out their activities, they can pick up a resource listing for useful musical examples which fit the context of the attainment target in question.

The database of 361 resource entries can be expanded by the user. A quick collation of reference material is readily available on screen. Hopping from one level or strand to another is as easy as pressing lift buttons on screen.

The audit and advice section will help curriculum planners to evaluate the strengths and limitations of current curriculum provision. Moreover, when each unit of work has been completed by a group of pupils, it is possible to record the stage of development which they have reached. This means that the whole process of planning, recording and reporting is available in a coherent curriculum package, something that many of us would like to see just once before we die.

While the material was originally prepared to enable teachers and headteachers to provide music as part of the Expressive Arts 5-14 programme in Scotland, there is considerable compatibility for the practitioner south of the border.

The Music Show, from Channel 4's series of the same name, is the champion of universal access and musical freedom: music as experience for everyone - no passport, no technical knowledge required.

The package of video, books, tapes and CD-Rom won The TES Primary Resources Award earlier this year for its effective use of mixed media. Leaving aside the brilliant presentation, the richness of resources on the two-CD package alone is still stunning from a purely musical perspective.

The introduction to the structure and the components of music is fresh and simple to grasp. The video clips of musical illustrations presented as masterclasses for children by artists as diverse as Evelyn Glennie, the percussionist, and Shobana Jeyasingh, the Indian choreographer, infect the viewer with their enthusiasm: the difference between the captive audience and the captivated.

There are simple opportunities to illustrate sounds with a painting program, to make notes from the text, to learn how to overlay sound on simple recording facilities. The approach to music is based upon the concept that music is largely composed of basic building blocks which everyone can understand and anyone can learn to use. And that really is the crux of the matter.

The Music Show evokes a confidence which is exactly right: children need to believe that music is not so very complex and does not belong to someone cleverer than them.

Too often music teaching is all about someone else producing marvellous work or working under close direction to emulate a sound that is technically excellent. Music was always meant to be a means of communicating our ideas, our fantasies and our feelings. Now let me play you my own variation on a Z string once more.

* 5-14 Music CD-Rom For Mac LCII or faster; system 6.07 or later with 2.5 Mb free; 4Mb hard disc space, Pounds 39.99 (exc.VAT)Scottish Council for Educational Technology. Tel: 0141 337 5000The Music Show CD-Rom for Multimedia PC or Acorn, Pounds 19.99Educational Television CompanyChannel 4. Tel: 01926 433333The Virtual School of MusicCD-Rom for Multimedia PC, Pounds 44.50Key Random. Tel: 01225 480964

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